the Fifth Sunday of Lent
Stone and Stone-Worship
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Sacred stones are mentioned with great frequency in the Old Testament; they were erected by Jacob at Beth-el (Genesis 28:18; comp. 31:13), at Shechem (Genesis 33:20 [where should be read instead of ), at Gilead (Genesis 31:52), and over the grave of Rachel; and by Joshua in the sanctuary of Shechem (Joshua 24:26; comp. Judges 9:6). The "stone of help" ("Eben-ezer") set up by Samuel (1 Samuel 7:12) was such a "maẓẓebah"; and other sacred stones existed at Gibeon (2 Samuel 20:8), at Enrogel (1 Kings 1:9, "the serpent-stone"), and at Michmash (1 Samuel 14:33). Twelve stones of this characterwere set up by Moses near his altar at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:4), and a circle of twelve at Gilgal was ascribed to Joshua (Joshua 4:20). Finally, JACHIN and BOAZ, the two columns of the Temple (1 Kings 7:15 et seq.), were such maẓẓebot, not intended as supports for the building, but possessing an independent purpose, as is shown by their names.
The Phenician temples also contained such columns, and maẓẓebot long served as legitimate symbols of Yhwh. Even the prophet Hosea forewarned Israel of the terrible days to come (Hosea 3:4; comp. 10:12), when they should be "without a sacrifice, and without an image ["maẓẓebah"], and without an ephod, and without teraphim"—that is, without public worship; while Isaiah prefigured the conversion of Egypt to Yhwh with the words, "There shall be . . . a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord" (Isaiah 19:19, Hebr.).
The Deuteronomic, code, on the other hand, rejected the maẓẓebot, rightly recognizing that they did not originally belong to the cult of Yhwh, but had been adopted from the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 12:3, 16:22; comp. Leviticus 26:1, and the commandment to destroy the maẓẓebot, "asherot," and similar objects of Canaanitish worship in Exodus 23:24 and 34:13). The Deuteronomic historian accordingly regarded the downfall of the people as due to the erection of these maẓẓebot by Judah and Israel (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10), while the pious kings showed their righteousness by destroying them (2 Kings 3:2, 10:26, 18:4, 23:14).
The worship of sacred stones constituted one of the most general and ancient forms of religion; but among no other people was this worship so important as among the Semites. The religion of the nomads of Syria and Arabia was summarized by Clement of Alexandria in the single statement, "The Arabs worship the stone," and all the data afforded by Arabian authors regarding the pre-Islamitic faith confirm his words. The sacred stone ("nuṣb"; plural, "anṣab") is a characteristic and indispensable feature in an ancient Arabian place of worship. Among the Canaanites, as the Old Testament abundantly proves, the worship of maẓẓebot was common; while with regard to the Phenicians, Herodotus states (2:44) that the temple of Melkart at Tyre contained two sacred pillars. In like manner, two columns were erected for the temples at Paphos and Hierapolis, and a conical stone was worshiped as a symbol of Astarte in her temple in the former city. The representation of the temple of Byblos on a coin shows a similar conical pillar. Such examples may readily be multiplied (comp. Ezekiel 26:12).
These stones were extremely diverse in form, ranging from rough blocks, over which the blood of the sacrifice, or the anointing-oil, was poured (Genesis 28:18; 1 Samuel 14:33 et seq.), to carefully wrought columns, such as those erected in the Temple of Solomon or in the Phenician sanctuaries. A number of simple stone columns have been preserved. Thus there is a Phenician boundary-stone from Cyprus, in the form of an obelisk, and set on a small pedestal; others have been found in the excavations of the Deutscher Palästinaverein at Tell al-Mutasallim, the ancient Megiddo. The sanctuary at the latter place had at its entrance two stone columns, simple quadrilateral monoliths, tapering slightly toward the top, and very similar to the maẓẓebot at the entrance to the place of sacrifice in the ancient Edomite sanctuary at Petra.
The original signification of the sacred stone iswell illustrated by the account of the one at Beth-el (Genesis 28). Jacob slept with a stone for a pillow, and dreamed that the Lord addressed him. When he awoke he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not"; then he anointed the stone, or, in other words, rendered an offering to it. This belief in a maẓẓebah, or in a stone, as the habitation of a deity is spread throughout the world, and even the designation "Beth-el." was adopted among the Greeks and Romans, under the forms βαιτύλιον and "bætulus," to denote a stone of this character. At a very early period the stone served likewise as an altar of sacrifice, and the offering laid upon it was by implication given to the deity that dwelt therein. It must also be borne in mind that originally, even in the case of a burnt offering, it was the blood and not the act of burning which constituted the essential of the sacrifice, and that the shedding of blood on the sacred stone served the same purpose as anointing it. There was no idea, however, of identifying the deity with the stone, as is shown by the fact that a number of stones, or trees, sacred to a divinity might stand together. Where specially chosen or prepared sacred stones took the place of natural landmarks, they expressed an invitation to the deity to take up his abode in them (comp. Hosea 13:2). Among the Greeks the sacred pillars of stone were developed into images of the deity, and received a head and a phallus; but the Israelitish maẓẓebot, did not pass through this evolution.
Relation to Altar.
It is clear that the maẓẓebah and the altar originally coincided. When the Arabs offered bloody sacrifices the blood was smeared on the sacred stones, and in the case of offerings of oil the stones were anointed (comp. Genesis 28:18, 31:13). The same statement holds true of the Greco-Roman cult, although the black stone of Mecca, on the other hand, is caressed and kissed by the worshipers. In the course of time, however, the altar and the sacred stone were differentiated, and stones of this character were erected around the altar. Among both Canaanites and Israelites the maẓẓebah was separated from the altar, which thus became the place for the burning of the victim as well as for the shedding of its blood. That the altar was a development from the sacred stone is clearly shown by the fact that, in accordance with ancient custom, hewn stones might not be used in its construction.
It thus becomes evident that originally the maẓ-ẓebot were unknown to the Sinaitic Yhwh cult, although the entire course of history renders their incorporation in the religion of Israel readily intelligible. Such sacred stones were found by the Israelites in the Canaanite sanctuaries and on the "high places," and were thus taken over like so many other features of religious observance. No attempt was made, however, to justify such a usage, or to bring it into relation with the cult of Yhwh, but these sacred stones came to be regarded as memorials of events in the lives of the Patriarchs or in the history of the nation, as in the case of Jacob's stone at Beth-el, Joshua's at Gilgal, and the stone Samuel set up between Mizpeh and Shen.
- Kuenen, Religion of Israel to the Fall of the Jewish State, 1:390-395;
- Smith, Rel. of Sem. pp. 200 et seq.;
- Benzinger, Arch. pp.375 et seq.;
- Gall, Altisraelitischer Baalkultus, 1898;
- Lagrange, Etude sur les Religions Sémitiques;
- Enceintes et Pierres Sacrees, in Rev. Bib. April, 1900.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Stone and Stone-Worship'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​s/stone-and-stone-worship.html. 1901.